1973 was a long time ago. I was seventeen and trying to grow up. 1972 ended in a mess. On Christmas Eve my dad and I went see Nan in Liverpool. The trouble was; she lived close to my Uncle Bob. We drank in the pub and in his house. I was only 17 years old. Back home I threw up. Dad was in the dog house. He’d let me get pissed.
I recovered but life was changing. It was time to leave school and get a career. My elder brother was already working and I felt the need to do the same. I was going into banking. On the first day of the spring term, I strutted into school like some man about town and announced I was leaving. There was going to be a very welcome extension to my Christmas holiday. I was due to start work with the Midland Bank on February the second. Another month off? That’ll do nicely. My younger brother was also starting work. The working McChrystals.
In theory it was ideal. I’d gained six O levels and was going into white collar employment. What could possibly go wrong? Oh the beauty of hindsight. I needed to have a medical examination carried out by a private doctor. I duly attended my appointment in Rodney Street in Liverpool.
I should have known then. He was a sneering measly little man who clearly disapproved of this lumbering specimen of human kind from a terraced house in Seacombe. He conducted the whole process from the far end of his nose.
“How can you possibly go into banking if you just mumble everything.” I mumbled a teenage style of grunt. Then came the questions:
“Measles, mumps and chicken pox?”
“Did you contract these before the age of seven?” “Yeah.” Silent pause, deep sigh.
“The word is yes!”
“Yeah I know.” I half expected him to follow me out with an air freshener and a vacuum cleaner. Almost everyone I encountered during that time of employment treated me in a similar manner.
It started with a week in the training branch in some outpost of Liverpool. It was so far out (man) that I needed to get a Crosville bus. This involved going to the road between the Liver and Cunard buildings. They look so august and elegant as you approach the Pier Head on the famous little ferry. For Liverpool it’s the definitive icon.
In some ways it seemed a relief to by pass the vulgar plastic and glass of the main bus terminus to board something a little more stately adjacent to the three graces. But that’s not the reality. It was February and the wind was bullying its way down the narrow road, funnelled by the sheer size of these much loved buildings. By the time I was sitting on the bus, I had transformed into some crazy-haired mad man with that overplayed look of desperation characteristic of a Hammer Horror film.
The branch itself was a drab modern piece of trash on some exposed plain, dotted with equally anonymous characterless excuses for architecture. The mood was sombre and patronising. I was in a classroom processing documents for a whole week. The staff took themselves seriously. They wanted us to be grateful that such charitable souls as themselves had actually given us a chance to become part of a national well-respected institution. I don’t think I spoke for a week. What interest could I possibly have in the symbolic nature of a bloody griffin?
I certainly didn’t try in the classroom. At the age of seventeen I was finally developing that true truculent teenage air of contempt. I was on a six month probation period. They constantly reminded us of this. But it was the first week and I was feeling viscerally repelled by the whole smugness and implied grandeur of this execrable organisation. I did not feel honoured. I felt bullied.
For the next three weeks, I worked in the proper part of Liverpool. Old Hall Street was a short walk from the ferry. It was one of those old slumbering branches where nobody seemed bothered by anything. Now I was bored. Then I was sent to my real branch; Charing Cross in Birkenhead. Yes Birkenhead has its very own Charing Cross.
It was one of two rather beautiful old buildings watching over the roundabout. There were pubs on the other corners. But my new branch felt like a prison.
It was a traditional set up; the senior management was male and the majority of underlings female. One or two of the girls were quite pleasant to me. For the rest however, I was whipping fodder. There was an air of resentment towards the management. For this, I didn’t blame them as there was an element of the MCP about some of them.
Needless to say I was a bumbling mess. I felt no value to anyone. I don’t think anyone wanted to be there; well smiling seemed rationed whilst moaning was becoming a national bankers’ past time. It was those golden handcuffs. Employees of banks received favourable mortgage rates thus enabling staff to buy slightly above their station. At last, a house in Higher Bebington was possible. But the duration of the mortgage was your jail sentence.
That was not the path I wanted. It was necessary to do another two weeks at the training branch. My attitude was clear. I wanted to be left alone but the dickhead manager insisted on a meeting with personnel on the final afternoon.
In some immaculate office in some slick modern building, I told some condescending prat that I found the whole thing tedious:
“Oh surely not,” he replied, beginning to look at me as if I was from Saturn. I walked out.
In June I gave a month’s notice. The violins played. The brass sounded a triumphant fanfare. That was the easy bit. Telling Mum was trickier. But I wanted control back. I wanted to go to the local college of further education and do my A levels. Then I wanted to go into teaching. It was not a nice experience feeling the miasma of a mother’s disappointment slowly build itself into the genial air of our warm friendly living room. But my mum was going to stick with me. She made that clear. She never said so; I just knew.
With her usual efficiency she arranged for an informal chat with my dad’s foreman at the Gandy. I couldn’t operate a machine until I was eighteen. But the eighteenth was five months off. I could scratch around as an odd jobber and the opportunity to follow my dad onto the pre-form was there if I wanted it. Before that started however, I’d managed to time things so that I could have my annual five days residential with the local youth orchestra.
Five months of culture starvation had left me yearning to mingle with like minds. It was my fourth year and I’d made some good friends. There was one incident during lunchtime in the back of the Midland prison when I came in with an LP. There were some good record shops around then. My usual purchases were prog rock or something singer/songwriterish. But this day I walked in with the Saint-Saens symphony number three. The looks said everything; I was back on Saturn again. So to spend five days indulging in playing, talking and discovering was a real paradise.
The impact of the factory was a blow. Swapping the calm of the leafy gardens and open fields of Burton Manor for the relentless thrum of the concrete windowless shop floor of the Gandy left me devastated.
I had to be stoic. If I was able to start A levels in September, it was going to be bearable. And it was.
In complete contrast I was practising the piano like a demon. My life was polarised but the money was handy. At the beginning of September I started my course. Tech was a mile away so I walked. Within weeks I was losing the podge of sandwich and cake lunches. I was feeling a new person. The account of my time there is not very exciting. I had my vision and I was putting the disaster of 1973 behind me.
But there were still some memorable moments. I had a week away with my old school pal Roger on the Isle of Man. It was a masterpiece of relaxation and beer drinking. I’d had sunny Saturday afternoons with my mate Pete watching the bike and car races in New Brighton. I’d seen Status Quo and Wishbone Ash live. Queen burst onto the scene with their storming first album.
These days politicians can bang on endlessly about social mobility; giving the chances for those from poorer backgrounds to make their way up the socio-economic ladder.
That year marked my initial attempts to begin my ascent. But over the years I’ve seen the paths made available to me and I’m not sure if I really want to be going there.
No! Getting a successful education, and I’m talking beyond school and university here, does not give you the tools for happiness by raising one’s class status. (Note the golden handcuffs of the bank). Instead it gives you wider choices. I’ve been able to exercise those choices. 1973 showed me what I was up against. It was a harsh introduction to the perils of progress. Whenever I approach that part of Birkenhead my heart still sinks.
Thank-you for reading.